Long before Sonny Bill Williams unwittingly became involved in cricket’s recent ball tampering furore, he had made an impact on the psyche of rugby.
“SBW” had become known as the master of the offload, influencing fellow players and inspiring youngsters to try to emulate the acts of legerdemain with which he passed the ball.
Bringing to bear skills picked up in the creative milieu of New Zealand age-group rugby and honed in touch, Sevens and League, Williams started to reveal an array of ways to keep the ball alive; to move it on to a teammate.
He could back flip, reverse flip, cross flip, hands-through flip, flip the ball up as he went to ground or make it look as though he was about to tuck the ball under his arm before transferring it.
There was deception and subterfuge in what he brought to the game; an element of hypnotic suggestion that he would do one thing and then do another.
The big centre’s impact came to mind recently while watching a game on TV and hearing a commentator exclaim “wow, that was a marvellous Sonny Bill!” as a player who was hemmed in managed to pass the ball behind his back to a teammate cutting back across the flow.
It touched a nerve on two levels: That by and large South African teams and players are poor passers of the ball and, to drop in a clanging contradiction, that it is actually not about the “pass” but also about the “catch.”
Most local sides are guilty of time-wasting and space-constricting habits when it comes to moving the ball.
Scrumhalves who take a few steps towards their flyhalf before passing, passes which fly high, or behind, the receiver. The moment a player on the end of a pass has to stop, slow down or reach for the ball, his stride and pace is broken and the split second of surprise is lost.
Most of us were taught it, Naas Botha has been emphasising it for years and it’s a drum that David Campese beats – the best way to receive the ball is in front of you, for the simple reason that it forces forward movement while also providing a wide-angle view of what’s in front of you.
Then there’s the pervasive fixation on hard spin-passes or miss-out passes when simply moving the ball to the next man would do. And therein lies the trick – the essence of Sonny Bill’s supposed magic.
Passing is mostly about catching and the key actor in all of this is the man who receives the ball. What appear to be outrageous “offloads” only work because there is a player backing-up, a player who has put himself in position to receive the ball and most of all a player who is expecting the ball to be passed and is ready for it.
Contrast this with South African teams where time and time again one sees the embarrassing spectacle of a player ham-handedly knocking the ball on, or actually even running into the ball, without getting his hands in position, because he was not alert to a possible pass.
It is not new. Izak van Heerden, the legendary Natal coach, advocated the triangle or diamond of support as far back as the 50s and Dr Danie Craven made films to demonstrate how simple and slick passing and catching could cause the ball to travel faster than a running man.
Sadly, years of obsession with “bash it up” rugby coupled to the effects of habitual off-sides play have denuded the beauty of pass-and-catch, but there is hope.
The Lions adopted a “let-the-ball-do-the-work” approach to great effect under Johan Ackermann and Swys de Bruin and John Mitchell’s Kiwi mindset is slowly transforming the Bulls.
Now it’s for our other teams to catch up.